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Stakes high in fight over tribal casinos

By Peter Hecht - Based on the blizzard of campaign advertising alone, California voters on Feb. 5 will decide a $108 million question on Indian casino gambling – whether to add as many as 17,000 slot machines. Sacramento Bee 1/20/08

The gambling and labor interests who want "no" votes have shelled out more than $26 million to date, assailing the casino expansions as bad for California, a blow to workers' rights, unfair to poor tribes and a reward to the politics of power.

The four Southern California tribes seeking "yes" votes have spent more than $82 million in campaign cash to expand existing casinos into gambling resorts bigger than the largest casinos in Las Vegas.

They argue that the new gambling agreements – negotiated with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved by the Legislature – will create thousands of jobs and $9 billion in tribal revenue payments to the state over 20 years. The state legislative analyst says the state can count on at least $131 million a year.

The outcome of the four referendums – propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97 – may well depend on the influence of Schwarzenegger, who appears in commercials on behalf of the Pechanga Band of Luiseρo Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

With California in the throes of a searing budget crisis, with an estimated $14.5 billion deficit, Schwarzenegger touts a "historic, bipartisan agreement with the California Indian tribes." He declares: "Vote 'yes' for billions of dollars for California families. Vote 'yes' for California."

That argument is good enough for Burbank resident Phil Bartus, a loyal customer of California tribal casinos who has played slots at both Agua Caliente's Spa Resort & Casino in Palm Springs and at Pechanga's regal resort in Temecula.

"If this will make more money for our state, I'm for a 'yes' vote," Bartus said recently during a visit to the Chumash tribal casino in Santa Barbara County.

But Bartus' wife, Wilma, wonders how much is too much.

"I like the casinos. I like the gambling," she said. "But we don't want Las Vegas. It's too big, too crowded. I don't want Pechanga to go crazy with more slots. I think they have enough already."

Her argument reflects claims of the opponents' No on Unfair Gambling Deals campaign, paid for by the United Auburn and Pala tribes, the Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows horse tracks and the UNITE HERE labor union.

They argue that the four casino deals, which could increase the total number of slot machines in the state by nearly one-third, would be an unprecedented expansion of Indian gambling in California.

They say the four tribes, which already operate 2,000 slot machines each, could combine to surpass the total number of slot machines at the Bellagio, MGM Grand, Caesars Palace, Mirage and Mandalay Bay resorts in Las Vegas.

They also are advancing a populist argument that the four Southern California tribes – which in 2005 netted $200 million to $425 million from their existing slots – are getting rewarded for their political clout while other tribes still suffer.

Many California Indian tribes still live in poverty, despite a casino revenue-sharing fund that pays $1.1 million a year to each tribe without a casino. The money paid out is the same for the 4,000-plus member Yurok tribe as other Indian bands with far fewer members.

"The thing that gets me is that there is a perception that all Indians are rich from the gaming industry, which is not the case," said Nelson Pinola, tribal chairman of the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo Indians in Mendocino County.

Pinola's 1,000-member tribe is eligible for a casino, but there is little market in its isolated region. Many of the 200 members living on its 350-acre reservation live without running water or electricity, Pinola said.

"There is some irony when we have these four (Southern California) tribes (asking) us for our support when tribes like mine have nothing and still live in poverty," Pinola said.

But such arguments of unequal treatment for California Indian tribes are undercut by the identity of the narrator in "no" campaign commercials decrying tribal poverty. That narrator, Leroy Miranda, is vice chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, which operates a lucrative 2,300-slot casino in northern San Diego County and is a direct competitor to the Pechanga tribe.

Pala has contributed $9 million to the "no" campaign – the same amount as another opponent, the United Auburn tribe near Sacramento. United Auburn's Thunder Valley Casino reaps an estimated $350 million to $400 million in annual profits and is considered the nation's third highest grossing Indian casino.

"Let's not be mistaken that these tribes have some altruistic notion," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Southern California tribes' Coalition to Protect California's Budget & Economy. "They just don't want competition."

While some poorer tribes protest the wealth and clout of the four tribes now seeking casino expansions, others resent the petition drive by labor activists, competing horse racing interests and Pala and United Auburn that qualified the referendums in a bid to block the new deals.

Matt Franklin, chairman of the 720-member Ione Band of Miwok Indians in Amador County, said his tribe endorsed the Southern California casino expansions because it fears it could face a state referendum challenging its own casino efforts.

"If a third party comes in and runs ads against us, there's no way we can fight back," said Franklin, whose tribe faces intense opposition over its bid for a casino near Plymouth.

The referendums may have less to do with casino profits – and potential state revenue – than raw calculations of political power.

The UNITE HERE hospitality workers union, which decries a "Southern California gambling cartel," was furious when the four tribes wouldn't agree to workplace concessions – including the right to organize without a secret ballot – that were accepted by Pala and United Auburn.

Spokeswoman Alison Harvey said the Pala and United Auburn tribes were irked by the political gamesmanship of the Southern California tribes. Pechanga, Agua Caliente, Morongo and Sycuan have flooded the Legislature with contributions and have fought other tribes' gambling agreements – including the Yurok's bid for a tiny, 99-slot casino – where they feared language in other compacts would upset their own negotiations.

"They felt these other tribes were bullies," Harvey said. "Somebody stood up to them and said, 'Enough.' "

This is a fight that may be far from over. The U.S. Department of Interior recently recorded the Southern California gambling agreements in the Federal Register, prompting the four tribes to claim the agreements already are in effect – no matter what California voters decide. There are no plans to add slots before Feb. 5. But if the voters reject the casino expansions, a major legal battle appears all but certain.

Said Morongo's attorney, George Forman: "Ultimately, if they vote no … a court is going to have to look at the implications of that."

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